In response to a reader’s letter, the editor of The Balance, and Columbian Repository wrote in 1806 that a cocktail consisted of four elements: spirits, water, sugar and bitters. But according to Employees Only’s Robert Krueger, it’s not that simple anymore. “The term has broadened from the original definition of cocktail,” says Krueger. “Bitters are in the definition of a cocktail, though.”
Bitters aren’t just in the definition; they’re often the defining element. Bitters may be the smallest component, used only by the dash, but they can change the character of a drink for better or worse. The pocket rocket behind many classics, from the old fashioned and the sazerac to the Manhattan, bitters are responsible for a well-balanced cocktail. “Take the Manhattan,” says Krueger. “On the whole, it’s a little bit sweet, but the bitterness is the finish. It’s what balances out the sweetness and keeps you drinking more. The bitters are the punctuation — they’re the thing that lingers.”
While there are now countless varieties available, for Krueger, Angostura and Peychaud’s Bitters are essential, along with orange bitters.
Andrea Gualdi of Maybe Frank and Maybe Sammy in Sydney agrees. “Aromatic bitters are a must have, especially for classic cocktails,” he says. “The classics we use are Angostura and Peychaud’s. Then we have grapefruit bitters, coffee, celery and orange, of course. If you want to have a bar, you at least need Angostura, Peychaud’s and orange bitters. Everything else is a plus.”
When Employees Only New York launched in 2004, choices were limited. “We could get Angostura, Peychaud’s and a company called Fee Brothers,” says Krueger. “Over the next five years, boutique bitters operations opened up all over the globe.”
Using bitters to their potential has always required a deft touch — just a dash can be the difference between success and failure. The introduction of new variations has both opened doors for bartenders and complicated the world of mixology.
Making the most of aromatic bitters comes down to a combination of strong foundational knowledge and fearless experimentation. Krueger’s advice? “I say grab a range of different bitters that pique your interest. Take one cocktail and split it up into multiple glasses and treat each one with a different bitters to see what they enhance and what elements they bring out. A combination may end up getting the job done.”
It’s a process the team at Employees Only regularly goes through. “We might like the balance of ingredients, but want a little more depth and end to the story, so we’ll try three different bitters,” says Krueger. “The cinnamon element in one might come out and another might brighten up the orange — different bitters harmonise with different ingredients.”
Experimenting may be encouraged, but there’s a method to the madness. One approach is to understand the history behind different bitters. “There are so many brand ambassadors who do training and [can] show you how [bitters] are made,” says Gualdi. “Once you understand how something is made, it gets easier to play with it.”
Knowing how specific liquors are made and what goes in to them can give bartenders a greater depth of understanding, ultimately improving their skills. According to Gualdi, bitters express regionality because they are distilled from native botanicals. “I check the area where they come from and see what other herbs grow there; usually what grows together goes together.”
How the ingredients go together is equally as important. It may be just a dash or two, but timing and preparation method should not be overlooked as it will affect dilution. Putting the bitters and sugar in before adding spirits will achieve different results compared to diluting the spirit before adding bitters. “Generally, they go in early so they get a chance to permeate, but it’s not always the case,” says Krueger. “Putting it in at a different stage could get it to the right level of dilution to harmonise. If you’re putting a dash in at the top, that’s where they’ll make their appearance.”
Using a dash of bitters to garnish something like a sour, which uses egg whites, is less about complexity and balance and more about mindset. “When we make cocktails that use egg whites, we always put the bitters on the top, not in the drink,” says Gualdi. “When you go to drink, you put your nose in the glass, so you smell bitters not egg whites [when you put bitters on last].”
Gualdi also considers the method of preparation as well as the style of spirit. To make Maybe Frank’s Flamingo Capri (a twist on the cosmopolitan using pisco and aquavit) Gualdi uses Peychaud’s, which tends to work better with lighter spirits, especially with drinks that are stirred rather than shaken. “Peychaud’s adds complexity [and] lifts up the flavours,” he says. “With whisky and rum, I like to use Angostura.”
The fact that bitters are such an important component of many classics makes them the perfect vessel to give old favourites a twist. Replacing the type of bitters in a classic can change the drink without altering its DNA. By maintaining the same ratios of whisky, water and sugar and substituting Angostura with another variety of bitters, bartenders can uncover new flavour profiles while serving up a recognisable old fashioned or sazerac, for example. As Gualdi says, “Nothing is written in stone; you can always twist a drink, especially with aromatic bitters.”
While most good cocktails will include a bitter element, it’s not always the aromatic kind. A strong Italian influence at Maybe Sammy sees a reliance on amaro, while Maybe Frank is more international in flavour. “That’s why we go for something like Becherovka [at Maybe Frank], which has different kinds of herbs and botanicals,” says Gualdi.
Czech in origin, Becherovka is made from a secret combination of more than 20 herbs and spices, resulting in a gingery, cinnamon flavour. “I like working with it because it has a unique flavour,” says Gualdi. “You can mix it with anything — you just have to be careful about the proportions. I like making a negroni and replacing the gin with it. It’s very aromatic. I use 40/40 vermouth and Campari, then 10–15ml of Becherovka.”
At Maybe Sammy, it’s used in the Thunderbird, which combines two Italian aperitifs with housemade kombucha. “The kombucha is more acidic and carbonated [than store-bought varieties], so you just need 10ml of Becherovka because the bubbles really bring it up,” says Gualdi.
In the Down Payment — a Sydney exclusive from the Employees Only team — Suze is what functions as the bitters. Normally drunk as an aperitif, the French brand of bitters is flavoured with gentian roots. “There’s almost always something in a cocktail that serves as a bittering agent,” says Krueger. “That’s how they come together.” Aperitifs and digestifs are generally less concentrated than aromatic bitters and often include sugar, making them palatable for sipping on their own as well.
Image: Maybe Sammy’s Thunderbird